Frank Lyford looks back on his decision to leave the the Heaven's Gate cult, whose members were all found dead wearing matching Nike sneakers in a 1997 mass suicide

By Chris Harris
June 14, 2019 11:59 AM

He didn’t know what it was or where it was coming from, but it was a feeling Frank Lyford knew he couldn’t just ignore.

A somewhat foreign sensation, it struck towards the end of the summer of 1993, and, because of it, Lyford walked away from the Heaven’s Gate cult after 18 years of devotion — leaving behind the woman he loved.

“It was this deep, gut-felt misgiving of remaining in the group, remaining in the cult,” Lyford — who defected from the alien-obsessed religious sect when he was 39 — recounts ahead of the next episode of People Magazine Investigates: Cults, which airs on Investigation Discovery on Monday, June 17, at 9 p.m. ET.

“I couldn’t express it at the time and I didn’t know what my life would look like — what it’d be like adjusting to life outside of the group — I just knew I couldn’t remain in the cult anymore.”

Two days later, Lyford — back under his parents’ Canadian roof, but still under the spell of Marshall Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate’s wild-eyed leader — received a call from Erika Ernst, who he still refers to as “the love of my life.”

She pleaded with him to return; he asked her to leave. The call ended, much like Erika’s life would little more than three years later.

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Ernst and 37 other brainwashed followers of Heaven’s Gate methodically died by suicide over three days in late March of 1997 — their bodies discovered inside a Rancho Santa Fe, California, monastery after someone called police with an anonymous tip.

Frank Lyford, Erika Ernst
| Credit: Lucky8 TV(2)

Also dead in the compound was Applewhite, who’d systematically convinced the group they’d need to free their mortal souls in order to board a spaceship that was trailing behind the Hale-Bopp comet, bound for a distant, androgynous alien planet called “The Next Level.”

Heaven’s Gate Leader Marshall Applewhite
| Credit: Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma/Getty

Dressed in black track suits with matching Nike sneakers and plastic bags over their heads, all had willfully ingested apple sauce laced with barbiturates, which was then washed down with vodka. Hidden beneath purple shrouds, all had a small amount of cash and their I.D.s in their pockets.

News of the suicides rocked Lyford’s world.

“I knew it was the same group I was a part of, so it was a very emotional time for me, from the standpoint of feeling the loss of all of my friends who I had been with for 18 years,” Lyford tells PEOPLE.

Now, at 65, with 20 years of introspection under his belt and the benefit of hindsight, Lyford wishes he’d pushed Ernst harder to leave.

The cover of People Magazine’s April 14, 1997, issue focusing on the Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide

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“If I were back on that call with her right now, I would be more emphatic about her leaving,” Lyford explains, noting he’d share with her some of the knowledge he’s acquired since the cult’s demise.

“We all have a connection to the divine within us, we all have that radio transmitter built in — we don’t need anyone to translate that for us,” Lyford says. “That was the big mistake that we all made, in my mind — it was believing we needed someone else to tell us what our best path should be.”

People Magazine Investigates: Cults airs on Investigation Discovery on Monday, June 17, at 9 p.m. ET.